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Iraq War vet celebrates progress over PTSD

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 15, 2008 - For Iraq War veteran Brad Seitz, the color purple symbolizes five years of life after near-death.

Purple balloons will direct guests to a party this weekend noting the fifth anniversary of the day he earned a Purple Heart in service to his country. He will hang out with family and friends at the bowling alley in the recreation center of the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center. Refreshments will include a Purple Heart cake, compliments of the VA.

Seitz, 31, has a fondness for the place. On Thursday nights, the pool, weight room and other facilities are open to all area veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a place to find people who understand what he's been through, he said.

Here, too, Seitz has found help to cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I just like getting my story out there. I guess I would be considered a good story for the VA. All of my treatment has been excellent,'' Seitz said. "I think I've gotten the top-notch care that the VA offers. People should know that it's not all bad stories. There are good things that happen.''

Five years ago – on the night of Aug. 13, 2003 – Seitz's convoy of Humvees was ambushed by insurgents. Shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade peppered his right arm, the explosion knocking him unconscious. He was also shot in the foot during the attack.

Seitz was with the 1st Marine Division that fought its way through Iraq to Baghdad in the early days of the invasion in March 2003. He was among the casualties of the growing insurgency the following summer, wounded just two weeks before he was scheduled to come home.

Much has happened since that night. He got married and is now a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service who proudly wears his Marine cap on his rounds. And he welcomes invitations to speak to schools and groups about his experiences in Iraq.

Seitz retired from the Marines with the rank of corporal and 30 percent disability. He credits the VA with helping him learn to cope with PTSD, and he has a message for other veterans who might be reluctant to seek treatment.

"I have no problem telling someone I have PTSD. It's not a bad word. I went through something that was traumatic. It may take me time to get over it,'' Seitz said. "The veteran has to want to get the treatment. You have to be proactive in your own recovery from what you went through. You just have to tell somebody you need help, and they'll help you."

These days, Seitz said he is sleeping much better, though he is still gets anxious when startled.

The party is a celebration of life, Seitz said. His wife Helen has made an album of his Iraq photos, and they will share their thankfulness that his injuries weren't worse.

"I just like hanging out with people,'' he said. "We'll be bowling and having fun.''

Memories of war

Seitz has an outgoing personality and an open approach to life that he believes served him well as a Marine.

"I think I do well in new environments and make new friends easily. I do well with new situations,'' he said.

Seitz is still a first-wave Marine, speaking on behalf of fellow veterans as he navigates through his own treatment for PTSD. The VA estimates that PTSD occurs in 6 to 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans and 12 to 20 percent of Iraq veterans.

Seitz has a Power Point presentation on Iraq that he is happy to share with interested audiences. He said his pride in his military service has grown stronger over time.

"I realize that what I've been through was quite an experience. I was a Marine, and I went to Iraq,'' he said.

He wants youngsters to know that the U.S. military built schools and brought running water and electricity to people in need, and worked to help establish a democratic government.

"When I go to schools I like to tell the kids that it's not just what you see on the news. It's not just about people dying,'' Seitz said.

He enjoys talking with kids because they aren't afraid to ask questions, even the tough one -- whether he killed anyone.

"I tell them I did because I had to,'' Seitz said. "I made a deal with myself that I wanted to get home, and I would do anything I had to do to make it home. So, yes, I had to. I'm not ashamed of it. I didn't do anything in Iraq I'm not proud of. I kept my nose clean and I did my job and I made it home."

Seitz enlisted just months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The 1995 graduate of Lafayette High School had been managing a ski and bike shop in Colorado.

"After that happened, I was laying on my couch, and I thought to myself I needed to repay the United States for all the freedoms I've enjoyed my whole life. I just felt I needed to do something," he said.

Seitz told his Marine recruiter that he wanted to join the infantry. "I didn't want to join and sit behind a desk. I wanted to join and fight.''

After basic training at Camp Pendleton, Seitz was trained as an infantry mortar man.

"We trained like we were going to war,'' he said. "Every day, we were working with rifles and mortars.''

When President George W. Bush gave the order to invade Iraq, the 1st Marine Division was ready.

"We did not have a base, no staging points. We were the first ones up,'' Seitz said. "We just kept moving. We would stop, get out and launch mortars. Then pack everything up and go, moving so fast supply lines couldn't keep up with us.''

Because of short supplies, the Marines were limited to one MRE meal a day and as little as an hour and a half of sleep.

"We were hungry, tired, thirsty. We had enough water, but it was all chemically cleaned, so you could taste the chlorine in it,'' Seitz said. "It's war. It's just one of the things they prepared us for. You learn to live on no sleep and little food and little water. It has changed my outlook on things. Being in war and knowing what I went through and that I almost did die, I definitely look at things a lot differently now.''

Seitz describes with riveting detail the attack in which he was injured.

He was in the last of a convoy of four unarmored Humvees leaving a jail where they had transported prisoners. A rocket-propelled grenade came through the front window. Seitz, who was riding in back, was knocked unconscious by the explosion.

"I remember opening my eyes, and all I could see was smoke,'' he said. "You couldn't see in front of your face. It felt like somebody had their hands over my ears. I couldn't hear anything. I had really bad ringing in my ears. While I was unconscious, they had started firing from both sides. You could see the sparks from where the bullets were hitting in the Humvee. I turned, and that's when I got shot in the foot.''

He recalls the heavy machine gunfire from the Marines. His friends picking him up to carry him to safety. The Blackhawk helicopter ride to Baghdad for emergency treatment. An emotional phone call home to tell his family what had happened. Medical personnel emailing a photo of his injuries to his girlfriend, now his wife Helen.

Seitz still keeps that photo filed in his Palm Pilot.

It all happened quickly

Within weeks of the battle, Seitz was back home in St. Louis on medical leave, awaiting retirement from the Marines. He got married two weeks after returning home and began settling back into civilian life.

Looking back, Seitz knows that he showed symptoms of PTSD, most often triggered by loud noises. But he didn't seek help until after a frightening incident.

"Somebody had lit a firecracker, and it sounded like it was outside my door,'' he said. "I snapped into Marine Corps mode. I told my wife to get down and to stay low. And that freaked her out. She was scared; she was shaking. My heart rate was pumping. It felt like I was back in the situation. After that, she said, 'You need to go and talk to somebody about this.' "

The next morning, Seitz went to the VA and signed up for treatment.

"I'm glad I did it. It was one of the best things I've done since I've gotten back,'' he said.

The St. Louis VA offers various treatment programs for PTSD, tailored to meet individual needs,'' said counselor Julie Mastnak, a psychologist with the program.

Veterans who contact or are referred to the program are seen within two weeks - or immediately if it is an emergency, she said. The goal is to provide the skills necessary to cope with symptoms. The VA also works with primary-care providers to screen for PTSD.

"There is an increased sensitivity to returning veterans,'' Mastnak said. "I think there is a real intention that people want to support the veterans coming back."

But, as Seitz points out, the veterans must be willing to accept help.

"It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge that something's not the way you want it to be,'' Mastnak said.

Seitz said he found the group sessions particularly helpful.

"When I talk to my wife, she knows -- but she didn't go through it,'' he said. "She can't really relate to what I saw. It's nice to talk with other people about what you've been through.''

Seitz said he embraced the therapy.

"I like to think that you get out what you put in. I wasn't going to do it and just sit in the corner and not say anything. Just dive right in and tell everybody what I went through and what happened,'' he said.

He encourages any veteran who might have issues from combat-related experiences to call the VA.

"I had a friend who was in my unit who lost part of his hand. I called him, and said are you going to the VA? He said no. He doesn't want anything to do with the government. I tell him, 'It would be good for you.' You just have to be around people who understand.''

Seitz said veterans shouldn't let concerns about stigmas keep them from getting the treatment they've earned.

"I don't see how it would hurt you to tell someone you have an illness or PTSD,'' he said. "There might be some guys out there who think you're going to be looked down on because you're weak or you're not tough enough to handle what you went through. If I see a problem, I fix it. If you need help, get it."

The nightmares have lessened, Seitz said.

"I was sleeping maybe an hour-and-a-half a night. It was taking its toll, and I was constantly tired. I couldn't fall asleep. Then I would get flashbacks of when I got injured and that scenario. And then were crazy dreams of people from out of nowhere launching rockets at me. I was running and seeing rockets flying,'' he said. "I have been sleeping a lot more now."

Seitz said the treatment isn't just about him.

"I'm not doing it just for me, I'm doing it for my whole family,'' he said.

For Veterans

* On Thursday nights, area veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq are invited to open recreation at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center. Facilities include a pool, bowling alley, ping-pong, weight room and billiards. For information, call recreational therapist Jean Ferguson at 314-652-4100* Direct number of St. Louis VA's PTSD clinic:

314-894-6417

* VA 24-hour national suicide prevention hotline number:

1-800-273-8255

* VA Heartland Network's Veterans Crisis Intervention hotline:

1-888-899-9377

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